Pour Epater Les Bourgeois
Last year around this time, for reasons of applying to teach a workshop — so, you know, not because I’m a masochist — I had to look through the net to find my reviews.
The results were mixed — on finding them, not on them being bad — including reviews I KNOW I had for stuff like Darkship Thieves. So, I ended up trolling for reviews for every one of my books, including the fairly obscure, in fairly obscure blog.
This means, I ended up on this blog from someone who absolutely hated, despised and wanted my musketeer vampire book — Sword and Blood — to die in a fire. And not just because it was a vampire book, which one of my fans more or less drives me nuts with, by telling me that “Vampires are no, no, no.”
Most of her problems came from the fact she apparently is a big fan, not of the books, but of the Disney movie, and also that she doesn’t tolerate any deviation from her favorite version.
But one of them first made me shocked, and then made me laugh.
That was the first paragraph in which she went on and on about how I was afraid to use the word “penis” and had used “member” instead, and how wrong this was.
It was almost as funny as when some ijits thought that Kate — our resident Aussie, to whom “Bugger” is not an obscene term, and who can speak in single entendres, and does — used “Glittery Hoo Ha” to refer to certain vagina-obsessed precious snowflakes because she was afraid to type the word vagina.
To level set, yes, I do know that penis — and the other clinical terms — are supposed to be invisible in romance. I’ve been through any number of “how to write erotica” (not that I ever did, but I find it useful for writing “immediate” fiction.) classes, and they always tell us not to use “cutesy names”, just use penis, or vagina.
I do understand it, too, because if you write contemporary romances with a high amount of sex in them — and let’s be blunt, okay, that kind of novel is often used as erotica/porn by the female readers — you don’t want anything (including mood or introspection) to detract from the sensations (which is why books on writing erotica are so useful for people who want to learn immediate/sensation oriented fiction. which is useful for a bunch of other things.)
But here’s the thing, Sword and Blood, while involving sexual sensations, because duh, it’s that sort of vampire book, and it’s part of a vampire’s arsenal of tricks in that world, is NOT a romance or an erotica book.
More importantly, while it’s third person, it’s third person CLOSE IN. I.e. I’m…. thinking through the character’s voice. And the main character, Athos, is not only a man of his time but also, bluntly, a profoundly repressed man, which is part of what makes him vulnerable to the attack.
In the middle of the very formal and archaic language, a “penis” looked incongruous. I am sensitive to words — I used to be a poet. Yes, in full recovery now. Though the other day I wrote a poem on my website, it’s been… 31 years, five months and twelve days since my last sonnet — and that “penis” waving around in the middle of a poetic beginning made me think of my father in law’s tendency to tell off-color jokes using clinical terms. Which, for reasons I can’t attempt to explain, completely short circuits the funny, by popping you out of the jocular make believe universe such things exist in, and into real life clinical. You know “And then, before he put his penis in, he examined her vagina and said ‘is it supposed to present with that kind of rubor?'”
Even if you’re familiar with the medical terms, it is simultaneously not funny at all, and you kind of feel sad for your father in law, who is trying to be “one of the kids.” (When we were in our forties and he in his seventies. Nothing really shocking. Also, honestly, the stories were usually fairly innocuous.)
Well, I must have rewritten that sentence fifty times, trying all sorts of terms, including “hardness” and “erection” which frankly the character would know. He spoke Latin. But member was the only one that didn’t violate the feel of the other words.
It would be like, to remove the sexual context, if I were writing about a Victorian’s little finger, from third person close in and said “Anabel had a cut on her pinkie.”
If I am, even vaguely, trying to use “period evocative” (you can’t use period accurate, without completely messing up your readability) language, that sentence would stick out like a skunk at a ball. You’d use something like “Anabel had a cut on the smallest finger of her right hand.”
Note, that I know of, pinkie doesn’t embarrass anyone and is not considered a swear word in any language. But it is by far too modern, and it causes a sort of shock, by breaking with what the character would have thought. Not a good shock. It can, frankly make you burst out laughing, like the regency romance where they guy stops and asks the girl’s “affirmative consent” before kissing her.
Which is why I replaced “penis” with “member.” I’m not going to say it was the best choice possible (How in heck do I know? I’m just the writer. But it seemed to me to preserve the veils the character himself tended to put between him and reality. And yes, for those who are inevitably going to ask, there WILL be a sequel. It will probably be next year, though, as this year’s schedule is full/overfull with stuff that’s been waiting longer.) What I’m going to say, OTOH is that I find it bizarre someone would think I made that choice, not — perhaps — out of misguided style concerns, but because I’m “too delicate” to type “penis.”
This seems to be a persistent idea among a certain segment of writers who both want to push the envelope and have no clue where the envelope is. They seem to think that writing explicit is sex is going to shock a majority of readers, because APPARENTLY we live in a time of extreme longevity and most of the readers they imagine are circa my grandmother’s generation (and even then. I mean, I’m sorry, my grandmother was a practical woman who lived in a village. She might say “that’s not decent to talk about” but I’d bet you good money no mere word would shock her.) These largely imaginary readers will clutch their virginal bosoms, sigh “Oh, my stars and garters” and faint onto a convenient sofa when hearing “penis” or “vagina.” (Note to the young, the innocent and the doomed reading this: Victorians mostly put on a good act. Pornography was widely distributed in their time, tattoos were common, as were private piercings, and oh, yeah, the reason they put little skirts on their furniture legs — though that was not as common as your professors told you — IS NOT because they were prudishly innocent, but because they were imaginatively sexual, and could see sexual suggestion even in table legs. As Agatha Christie, who was born in the Victorian age, often has her younger characters say: “Victorians had minds like sinks.” And by this you shouldn’t understand scrubbed clean sinks.)
Look, let’s level set. I’m 57. I know this seems ancient to anyone under 35. Heck, sometimes it feels ancient to me. But I grew up in Europe, in the seventies.
Not only wasn’t I protected from bad words (and I probably have a much larger vocabulary than most of you for those) but the seventies were a little goofy. Society had taken Freud between the teeth, so to put it, and found it really important that no one — including pre-pubescent kids — be repressed or prudish, because that would ultimately lead to neurosis.
While I was lucky not to grow up in an Academic environment, where child abuse was considered therapeutic, we brushed the edges of it by virtue of being geeks. The number of times some skivvy guy told me that I was prudish because I refused to get naked for him to ogle, by the time I was, oh, 12, if converted to pennies would probably be as tall as I am. On top of which I read everything that came into the house. The “everything” included my sister in law’s anatomy books. (She’s a medical doctor.)
So, yeah, not only do I know the clinical words but, having grown up with a much older brother and his group of hippie-ish friends, who talked uninhibitedly in front of me, because frankly most of the time they forgot I was tagging along, by the time I was 11 or so there was very little of a sexual nature that anyone could say which would shock me.
Now, I grant you, having grown up in Europe, I probably had a more…. ah… explicit upbringing than most Americans. But I have a lot of friends within five years of me one way or another, and I don’t know a single one who would be shocked — shocked, shocked — at the word penis. Or vagina. Or uterus. Or really vulva (which is what the ignorant idiots mean when they say vagina.) Or labia. or any portion of the anatomy.
While I was once sent to bed without dinner for mentioning sperm at the table, (I had been reading my brother’s biology book. I think I was five. The sperm in question was I THINK sea urchin’s. Or something like that) it wasn’t because my mom had never heard the word, but because like the Victorians she had a mind like a sink, and assumed I was using the word to launch into a description of human reproduction (she never let me finish the sentence) and didn’t want the guests to think they let me read porn.
Seriously, guys, I can’t imagine anyone over …. oh, 15 thinking that the word is very very shocking. And I can’t imagine anyone over 20 getting a titivating feeling from saying it or reading it. Nor can I imagine anyone so naive that they think the word is shocking.
So, what is the point of all this? Other than my being amused and a little bit annoyed at someone thinking I suffer from an excess of prudishness?
Well, mostly because that type of calibration: what you consider beyond the pale, and what your readers consider beyond the pale, are highly subjective and personal. So this is an area to navigate with extreme care.
I know this because naturally — as in by natural inclination — I don’t have the same stops other people have. Both in terms of gore and in terms of sex, I can write things I think make perfect sense, or even are poetic or beautiful or define the character perfectly, and not realize my audience is between speechless and throwing up. (For instance, in one of my books, a character divides into male and female and has sex with him/herself. Now, see, to me this was all symbolic and stuff. But there were…. letters. Never mind.)
You can create entire worlds where the sexuality of the natives upsets a lot of people. And you might not know it.
On the other hand there is the other side of this. If you think that you’re writing to shock others, but it turns out the ones you’re trying to shock have more experience and a far twister imagination than you (well, the older ones have had way more practice) yu might arrange the emotional balance of your book to have a particular punch at a sex scene or even a kiss. And you might not realize that because your readers don’t find it shocking, the whole section falls flat.
OR of course, you might think you’re being a brave and bold pioneer and, even if your editors happen to be equally clueless, you might ONLY be rewriting The Left Hand of Darkness. With a strong possibility that it’s inferior to the original.
Look, as I’m fond of telling you, fiction is not an art created with words. It’s an art created with emotions. This means you need to be very careful about the emotions you evoke, and making sure they are what you MEANT to evoke.
This means, if you’re writing to make the Victorians swoon, or pour epater les bourgeois, make sure your audience is — in fact — a cardre of time travelers. Because if they’re not, you might have to find another way to make an emotional impact.
Sex and sexual attraction, like the entire panoply of human experience are ultimately just colors with which to paint your canvas. But before you do it, make sure that your reader will perceive that slash of bright red as bright red, and not the palest pink.